By Joseph Robertia
Personal-use dip netting for salmon is a rite of summer for an increasing number of Alaskans, who ply the waves of Fish Creek, the Kenai River or Kasilof River. According to data collected from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, more personal-use permits — 35,211 — were issued last year than any year since the fisheries began in 1996. And of the these three fisheries utilized for dip netting, none is growing as fast as the Kasilof River.
“There is a heightened interest in the dip-net fishery,” said Robert Begich, area management biologist for Fish and Game’s Division of Sport Fish in Soldotna.
According to Fish and Game data, in 1996 only 14,575 permits were issued for personal-use fishing, of which household days fished at the Kasilof River dip-net fishery totaled 1,300. By contrast, the Kenai River experienced 10,503 household days fished that year.
Jumping ahead to 2013, of the 35,211 permits issued, records reveal an eight-fold increase in household days fished at the Kasilof, with 8,556 days fished. The Kenai River, which still draws more people overall, has only had a three-fold increase during this same time period, with 33,193 household days recorded in 2013.
And unlike the Kasilof, which has experienced a steady increase in days fished since 1996, 2013 was the first year the Kenai River had less days fished according to permits records, dropping from an all-time high of 34,374 household days recorded in 2012.
Salmon harvests for this time period also correlate to the increase in days fished, as the Kasilof dip-net harvest swelled from 11,701 salmon caught in 1996 to 88,233 in 2013, while the Kenai harvest increased from 107,627 to 354,727 for the same time period.
Of course, the population of Alaska is increasing, and as more people become residents, more people are allowed to take part in the dip-net fisheries, but Begich said that the rate of increase in the Kasilof fishery is not necessarily related to a growing population.
“We haven’t seen that much of an increase in license sales,” he said.
So what is drawing more people to the mouth of the Kasilof? It depends on who you ask.
“We’ve fished in all three. We fished Fish Creek and the Kenai last year, so decided to try the Kasilof this year, and this is definitely going to be our spot,” said Pedro Bencid, of Anchorage, who swatted away flies while filleting his full bag limit Saturday afternoon at his camp at the mouth of the Kasilof.
Bencid said that while the Kasilof is crowded, and may be growing more so each year, it’s still less overall people than at the Kenai River mouth.
“The Kenai was just way too packed, and also you can’t drive and live right on the beach like you can here,” he said.
Bencid’s wife, Wendi Slade, said she liked temporarily tenting out right by where her husband hauled in fish, even if it was in an impromptu “city” of other campers all doing the same thing.
“It can be a little rowdy and noisy here at night, but we’re not coming for the rest, we’re coming for the fish,” she said.
The ease of access also was a draw for Michael Jones, of Eagle River, as well as the longer hours, since the Kasilof dip-net fishery is open 24 hours a day from June 25 through Aug. 7, as opposed to the Kenai, which is only open from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. from July 10 through July 31.
“It’s nice to be able to drive on the beach so you don’t have to ferry everything or haul a full cooler of fish. The fish are a little smaller, but I think it’s a friendlier atmosphere. The Kenai, with more people and the 11 p.m. cutoff, I think it makes people grumpier to get their fish,” he said.
Jones said this was his second season at the Kasilof, and he and his fishing buddy, Peter Stahley, also of Eagle River, said they had already noticed the crowd growing since last year.
“At one point, and this was when the fishing was totally dead, we counted the number of dip-netters and got 150 on the other side and about the same on this side, so it’s definitely still crowded,” Stahley said.
Unlike the city-maintained Kenai fishery, the Kasilof is on state-maintained land, so in addition to less rules and regulations, there also is less infrastructure for so many fishermen, which Stahley said will likely eventually present problems.
“There aren’t the accomm-odations and facilities like in Kenai, so if you step over the guardrail (erected to protect dune grass and estuary habitat near the river mouth) it’s pretty gross. It reeks of urine and feces and there’s used toilet paper everywhere. You wouldn’t think people would poop 3 feet from the guardrail, but people are. I find it disgusting, but I guess you get what you pay for here.”
Julie Thomas, of Homer, said she chose the Kasilof over the Kenai for dip netting because she didn’t want her two small children exposed to fecal matter, as the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation issued an advisory earlier this month after finding enterococci and fecal coliform bacteria levels in the Kenai that were double the state standards for recreational water, an ongoing problem during the dip-net fishery at the Kenai.
“We heard about the bacteria in the water, and with an 8- and a 3-year old, we didn’t want to take any chances,” she said.
For Marshia Gavino, of Anchorage, thoughts of her family also made her decide on the Kasilof over the Kenai, but it was money she was thinking about.
“I have 50 relatives and every year we all get together and come down on the weekends to fish, but with the Kenai charging more and more, it was just getting too expensive with that many people and all the vehicles,” she said.
Gavino said this was her fifth year at the Kasilof and she has noticed the crowds steadily increasing over time, but said it was still possible to eke out a spot in the sand to camp, and wiggle in the queue of fishermen standing with nets in hand in the water.
“It’s getting more crowded, like way more crowded, but we always manage to find a place to set up,” she said.